Make Music at Home with an Ukulele!
One of the most rewarding things your kids — and you — can do is learn how to play a musical instrument. It's never too late or too early to learn. One of the easiest and most fun instruments to learn is the ukulele. This diminutive Hawai'ian guitar has seen a resurgance of popularity in recent years, and you can find dozens of different models at local music stores and online.
With its four nylon strings, the ukulele is gentle on your fingers and basic chords can be picked up pretty easily. Fingering chards, lessons, chord progressions for songs, tabulature, and more can be found in abundance on the Internet. While you can spend thousands on a hand-made koa wood instrument, you can pick up a decent ukulele for under $100, so there's no excuse to start playing.
The ukulele — or "uke" for short — was introduced to Hawai'i in the late 19th century by Portuguese immigrants, and almost immediately became synonymous with traditional Hawai'ian music. Musicians on the mainland caught on to the uke during the Hawai'ian music craze of the 1910s and '20s and soon the ukulele became commonplace in American culture. In addition to island virtuosos like Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and Jake Shimabukuro, the uke has been embraced by musicians ranging from George Harrison to Taylor Swift.
Choosing a Ukulele
The original Hawai'ian ukulele is what is now known as the soprano or "standard" size, and is the most common version that you'll find. These are what most people think of when they hear the word "ukulele", and are perfect for all ages.
In the 1920s, new versions like the concert and tenor uke were developed. These larger instruments have a mellower sound than the smaller scale ukes and can be a little easier to play for some people due to their larger necks and fingerboards. There's even a baritone uke, which is tuned differently and sounds more guitar-like than its siblings.
Ukuleles come in a variety of woods and finishes. While a solid-wood instrument is best, they're also the most expensive. A beginner is better off getting a good quality laminate uke, especially over a solid wood one of a similar price. Some manufacturers offer plastic ukes, too, which are the perfect thing for playing at the beach or poolside without worrying that your instrument will get wet.
You'll find a lot of inexpensive instruments out there, especially at online retailers like Amazon, but you're really better off getting an instrument from a known maker. My family and I are huge fans of the ukuleles from Kala, a local company based in Petaluma. Check out their whole line at kalabrand.com. Their traditional mahogany line is a great choice for most players, and their Makala budget instruments are surprisingly good, especially for the price. Kids love the colorful Makala ukes with the shark or dolphin shaped bridges, and at less than 50 bucks for the soprano size you can't beat the price.
Other good makers of affordable ukes are Lanikai, Luna, Oskar Schmidt, and Islander. Big name luthiers like Martin and Fender make quality ukes, too.
Where to Buy a Ukulele in Marin
While you can easily order a ukulele from an online retailer like Amazon or Musician's Friend, we highly recommend getting one from a reputable local music shop. While you might save a couple dollars buying one online, your local shop will have already tested and set up your instrument. You can also play it before you buy it, which is always a big plus.
Right now during the COVID-19 shelter in place music stores are closed, but the good news is that all the music retailers in Marin are offering free delivery to your door. Call them or make an order online and they'll bring your instrument right to you! All these shops have a great variety of ukes to choose from and good prices:
Marin Music Center, 1205 Grant Avenue, Novato 94945
marinmusic.com, (415) 897-4131
The Magic Flute, 182 Northgate 1, San Rafael 94903
themagicflute.com, (415) 479-3112
Bananas at Large, 1654 2nd Street San Rafael 94901
www.bananas.com, (415) 457-7600
Amazing Grace Music on Redhill Avenue in San Anselmo also stockes ukuleles, but they're currently closed until the shelter-in-place order is lifted.
Learning to Play the Ukulele
You'll find plenty of ukulele teachers in Marin and the Bay Area. A perfect place to look for an one is at Marin Music Center, the Magic Flute, or Bananas at large. All stores have a roster of instructors they can refer you to, as well as practice rooms where lessons can take place. They even offer virtual lessons while we're all stuck at home!
The Internet is also a treasure trove of ukulele instruction. We recommend you start with Kala's Learn to Play page, which features pre-recorded video lessons for all levels of player as well as tutorials on basic subjects like how to tune your uke and learning the different parts of your instrument.
Some of Kala's instructors are also offering free online workshops, lessons, and jam sessions right now. Check out Ukulenny's online sessions, including a Keikilele Kids' Jam on Wednesdays at 10 am PDT.
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